adversity score

The SAT’s New ‘Adversity Score’ Is Well-Intentioned, but Deeply Flawed

The College Board has come up with a new way of turning your life into a number.

July 8, 2019
9 mins read

The College Board recently announced that they will be releasing the “Environmental Context Dashboard,” including the nicknamed “adversity score,” which will give colleges a measure of each student’s background and environment in a number.

The goal is to show that the effort it takes to achieve a certain score on the SAT can be vastly different between students for reasons that have nothing to do with intelligence. For example, family income level has been repeatedly shown to be highly correlated with SAT scores, as these families are able to afford expensive studying resources that aren’t available to all test takers. The adversity score tries to take these sorts of factors into account so colleges are better able to understand their applicant’s SAT score.

Apart from the adversity score itself, the Environmental Context Dashboard will include data on the SAT scores of the student’s high school peers and will give the percentile of each student’s score relative to their classmates. The purpose of the adversity score, according to The New York Times, is to find students who have done extremely well in their own environment, not just compared to students everywhere.

Additionally, colleges will be able to access information on a student’s high school, such as class size, availability and average score of AP exams and percentage of students who are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches. This information will provide colleges with a more accurate representation of how impressive (or not impressive) a student’s SAT score really is.

The actual adversity score, which the College Board calls the “Overall Disadvantage Level,” will be based on information from the student’s neighborhood and high school which has been drawn from the national census. This includes median family income, poverty rate, percentage of single-parent households, amount of vacant housing, rent as a percentage of income, percentage of certain education levels, probability of being a victim of a crime and more.

The score is on a 100-point scale, with 50 as the average. A high score will indicate higher levels of adversity, while a low score will indicate lower levels of adversity. The College Board has provided an example of an Environmental Context Dashboard, which shows that colleges will see the adversity score along with more specific disadvantage levels for the student’s neighborhood and high school.

In the 2018-2019 school year, the College Board tested the Environmental Context Dashboard with over 50 colleges and universities. The results were positive, according to the College Board. Applicants with higher adversity scores were more likely to be admitted, and the additional information helped admissions officers with students from unfamiliar high schools.

Furthermore, they say that the contextual information aided schools with their holistic approach in admissions. Anecdotes from the schools involved in the pilot program say that the Environmental Context Dashboard “helped them recognize hardworking students,” “rely less on stereotypes” and “[gave] us a better idea of what success looks like in that area.” This positive feedback and results have led the College Board to expand their program to 150 schools in the fall and to all colleges and universities next year for free.

Not everyone is on board with the Environmental Context Dashboard, however. One common concern is that students will not, as of now, be able to view their own adversity score. Only the colleges will have access. This restriction has brought up a number of concerns about the reliability of a score that has not been double-checked for accuracy or approved by students and parents. The College Board is considering allowing students to have access to their scores, but that would only bring up more concerns. Namely, cheating.

One lesson to be learned from the recent college admissions scandal is that parents will go to great lengths to get their kids into elite colleges. There is no doubt that these lengths can and probably will include parents cheating their way into a higher adversity score for their child. Some critics have suggested that the rich and desperate will just buy a house in a low-income neighborhood, which would also lead to gentrification.

Furthermore, as Ben Paris, a private tutor and critic of the College Board, said, “It will only be a matter of time before we have adversity consultants with knowledge of the system that will tell you what it takes to get your child’s adversity score where you want it to be.” College admissions have long been gamed out by expensive experts, and the adversity score will not go unnoticed by this market.

On the other hand, many critics also believe that the adversity score is poorly calculated and fails to encompass all factors that affect a student’s score. Most notably, the adversity score fails to consider race, which can seriously misrepresent the reality of many students in America.

Two students could have the same adversity score but face different obstacles in life due to their race. While the College Board’s adversity score can give some much-needed context by not including race, they are leaving out a factor that affects many students. After all, as Time writers André J. Washington and Daniel Hemel put it, “Nobody has ever been stopped and frisked by police for attending a high school with a low number of Advanced Placement offerings.”

There are serious problems with the adversity score and the Environmental Context Dashboard as a whole. The College Board is trying to combat socioeconomic inequalities that lead to lower academic achievement and standardized test scores, which is a worthy goal. In fact, it’s the same reason why many colleges and universities have gone test-optional and stopped requiring students to submit an SAT or ACT score. But the way the College Board is going about achieving this goal is flawed. Instead of trying to close the gap between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, perhaps by focusing resources into making qualified studying resources more widely available and easily accessible, they are instead trying to quantify the gap in an inherently incomplete way.

Furthermore, should adversity even be quantified? Putting the failings of the actual procedure aside, is it really a good idea to take experiences and hardships and compare them to each other in a distant, removed fashion? Any sort of measure that tries to boil down years of adversity in a quantitative way will leave out many individual hardships that people face. People face obstacles with physical health, mental health, family dynamics, social life and so much more that could never be compressed into a number. As one of my classmates said the other day, “You can’t be ‘3′ sad.” It just doesn’t make sense.

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